Every kid knows the easy marks on Halloween: bowls of candy left in front of houses that they can dump in their bags and, of course, the neighbors who hand out full candy bars.
But when Halloween began in the late 1800s, it was all fruit, nuts, and fancy truffles, says candy historian Susan Benjamin. The candy expert joined WBEZ’s Morning Shift and told us that early Halloweens were less about trick-or-treating and more about throwing parties where people ate stuff like apples, peanuts, and chestnuts.
“Then gradually over time they morphed into what we have today, which is, of course, the big hauls,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin, author of Sweet As Sin, spoke with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about some lesser-known Halloween history, how African-Americans were pivotal in the evolution of the holiday, and why Turkish Delight was game changer for candies. Below are highlights from their conversation.
On the origins of Halloween candy
Susan Benjamin: If you look at the ads of 1885, you see the grapes and the walnuts I was telling you about. By 1903 or so, they’re adding Jordan almonds, and a really big favorite was marshmallows up until around the 1930s.
Benjamin: So Halloween all during that time were parties, but now they’re adding chocolates. They had these wonderful truffles. Just all sorts of very fanciful kinds of candies as well as fruit. So fruit was still really present then; the Halloweens just became more and more ornate, wild, and crazy. And then, in the 1940s, trick-or-treating really took off.
On trick-or-treating entering the mainstream
Benjamin: It gradually morphed into Halloween trick-or-treating of today because of 1) industrialization and 2) packaging. Because now, instead of having these parties, you were able to dress up and go from place to place and have a whole range of sweets that were sanitary, packaged, easy to hold, and so on.
My hunch is that, although there’s nothing specific about why it happened, that it happened because of really great marketing, because candy was created more or less in the mid-1800s for kids anyway — not all of it but some of it — and because the candy was available in a way that really worked.
On the role of African-Americans in the development of candy
Benjamin: The role of African-Americans is pretty much untold and really, really monumental on all fronts. So, for example, the reason for enslavement which originally endured for 10 generations was sugar cane. And you find in that universe not only people who really struggled and survived these horrible conditions, but also were inventors.
So for example, one inventor who was of African-American descent and really brilliant, he created a sugar evaporator, which is the basis of the evaporating systems we have today. His name was Norbert Rillieux and he was from New Orleans.
But you also see these lesser-known enslaved people — a guy named Antoine — who gave us the modern-day pecan. So the role of African-Americans is really significant on all fronts and endures with us to this day.
On the historical importance of Turkish delights
Benjamin: The Turkish Delight is from the year 900, and it was used as a medicine in the Arabic apothecaries, then morphed into the jelly bean in the mid-1800s, and it was the basis of all the gummy candies we have today. How is that for enduring?
What’s this candy historian’s favorite candy?
Benjamin: You know, everybody asks me that! And I have to tell you it’s like choosing your kids, you know.
Benjamin: So this is going to be a let down. Things like Sugar Babies, Pop Rocks — real cheap stuff.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by Hunter Clauss and Justin Bull.